A couple of hours after Project 86 started a set with two new songs off of their upcoming summer self-release Wait For the Siren, to a crowd of about a thousand at the Purple Door music festival, we sat down with Andrew Schwab to discuss the new album, and the reinvention of the band. His new band members Scott Davis on drums, Dustin Lowry on guitar and Mikee “Norman” Williams on bass, were there for moral support.
HM: It says on Wikipedia that the band, “was started by Schwab as a way to inspire people to live
their lives with hope.” Is that still where you are at right now?
Andrew: I think that is the foundational idea behind it all for sure. I think to explain it a little further, I wanted to start a band where we could play music on our terms for the reasons that we felt were the right reasons and have our own sound. And be people of faith that still had the right perspective about doing it in such a way that isn’t cheesy or limited to the Christian market or the Christian audience. So writing honest music in a way that inspires people through the genuine spirit and lyrical content rather than an overt agenda of, “Hey, we’re the Christian band.” If that makes sense.
HM: Yes, that does make sense, actually. Now, you are doing a record on your own. You have done the independent route before. How is this different?
Andrew: I think the situation with Songs to Burn Your Bridges By was a lot scarier because there wasn’t anything like Kickstarter back then. We had just left Atlantic [Records]. We didn’t know what was coming next. We had a few extra songs sitting around. Our producer agreed to do it just on spec. And we just did it. And we did it fast. And then it turned out that Tooth and Nail [Records]; we reunited with them. They ended up putting it out and it ended up being a totally different thing.
With Kickstarter, it is such a well developed phenomenon now. We kind of knew what we were getting ourselves into. Now it didn’t make it any less exciting or I won’t even say stressful. But there was that tension there like, “Wow. What’s this going to be like?” But when you sign up with Kickstarter as an artist and you set a funding goal, and for us we set a very reasonable funding goal, probably lower than we even needed to just because we’d never done anything like that before. So you sign up for it and fans respond immediately. And you see emails every time someone donates or backs the project. It’s super exciting because every moment you are kind of on the edge of your seat during those thirty days or however many days you are raising funds to record your record or do whatever your project is.
HM: So with all the different things you can get when you sponsor the project, like dinner with the band. What if you get some whacko fan that you have to chauffer around all day? Have you thought about that?
Andrew: We haven’t had that experience yet, really. Most of our fans that are like our core fans have seen us multiple times. I know them by face and a lot of them by name. They just have a relationship with me and with the band. And it is usually a pretty mellow cool time. Like we went out to dinner when we were in St. Louis with one of the higher backers and spent the day with him and his sister and they introduced us to St. Louis style pizza and fried ravioli. It was really good. It was just a cool experience. Just being able to connect in that sort of way, and Kickstarter is kind of the excuse to do that, is enriching for us because it is new, even sixteen years into this.
HM: I heard the first two songs couldn’t really tell what was going on from the photo pit. But on the first song, everyone caught on pretty quickly. Why did you pick these two songs to present?
Andrew: These are just two of the songs that we felt would be the most immediate for the kids. So we could play it live and there would be an immediate reaction to these songs. And I think with this record, and with every Project  record, it is a diverse collection of songs. And we just wanted to choose a couple that would be just over the top live. And I’ll say this. As a band I’ve always had a kind of unspoken rule. We don’t usually play the new stuff until it is out. It’s rare that we start playing new material months before an album drops. And we’re confident in these songs. So it was cool. And it has been cool on this run to watch kids react and cheer after the new songs.
HM: The first song [they sang along] as if they knew the song already.
Andrew: Yeah and even it was a little bit ballsy I guess to play two brand new ones first. And that should tell people how confident we feel that these songs are going to relate to people and going to connect.
HM: Is there a theme to the new album?
Andrew: The name of the new album is called Wait For the Siren. And each song lyrically is basically a story or a picture. Whereas previous records may have been a little bit more cryptic. This one is maybe a little bit more image and narrative based as far as the lyrical content. There are a couple of themes that run throughout the record. One is the metaphor of David and Goliath and the whole idea, there is a lyric that my band have been saying during our sound checks during the day. And I thought they were making fun of me. But they were actually just saying, “No we really like this lyric.” And it sort of symbolizes one theme of the record. It is “The penitent man lays low.” It’s basically the idea [to] walk softly and carry an accurate sling. So one theme is just overcoming the giants, the goliaths in our lives. Whether that be battles with addiction or generational curses. There is a song on the record that is about generational curses and breaking those and facing very real obstacles but it is all cloaked in a metaphor of ancient battle. So hand to hand combat with swords. Like we are all Irish. Like all of our Irish ancestors did when they fought for our freedom. Because that is what you do basically when you walk by faith. You are engaging in a conflict and if you are penitent, if you are humble, and if you seek God and you know God, and you can overcome anything. So that is a theme on the record for sure.
HM: I have read that there have been various guest appearances on the album.
Andrew: Yeah I have been telling people this is our hip-hop record. We have a long list of pretty cool people who have been involved in this thing. [Pointing to band members in the room] A couple of these guys. Scott [Davis], our drummer, used to play in a band called The Myriad. He is on the record. Dustin [Lowry] who just came in the fold used to be in a band called The Becoming. He does some singing and somw guitar work on it. Mikee [“Norman” Williams] unfortunately was not able to; he is the base player; he came into the fold a bit after the fact. And then Rocky Gray who plays in Living Sacrifice and used to play in Evanescence is on the record. Cody Driggers from The Wedding plays bass on the record. Blake Martin from A Plea for Purging plays guitar. And then also Andrew Welch from Disciple plays guitar. And then Bruce Fitzhugh from Living Sacrifice does a guest vocal on a song. And Brian “Head” Welch does a guest vocal on a song. And then I recruited the whole band The Wedding to do some of the gang vocals because they have really good gang vocals. And then we hired a friend of Scott’s, one of the most renowned hammered dulcimer players. For those of you reading who don’t know what that is, I just learned this on this record as well. It’s a Celtic stringed instrument where they take hammers or leather straps or different things and you hit the strings and it creates the tone and the note. And it is actually a really interesting sounding instrument. And so that’s on a few tracks. I even hired an Uilleann pipe player. That’s like the Braveheart pipe. There’s a little mandolin in there. There is a tiny bit of the Celtic influence without totally committing to that. Like we are not trying to be Flogging Molly or anything like that. But there’s a little bit of that. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we all have sort of a common ancestry; all the guys that are playing together. So we are kind of exploring that, getting back to our roots a little bit.
HM: So would you call it a reinvention?
Andrew: Definitely. There’s a lyric on the first song on the record, one of the songs we played today. It says, “Can you smell it in the air, my brethren, it’s the beautiful stench of reinvention.” It’s definitely a new chapter. All of the branding for this chapter of the band is just P-eight-six. That’s the band. That’s the title. So we want people to know this is fresh. And I think the thing that is the most fresh is the spirit that’s coming out of the music. Whereas previous records might have been a little dirgy or a little dark in that self-explorational kind of way. This is uplifting. It’s still Project 86. It’s still heavy. It still has those same emotions. But the spirit driving it, you’ll feel it when you listen to it. There is an element of conquering that is more prevalent on this album than any of the previous ones.
HM: Of all the decisions that the record label normally controls, what was the one you have been most excited about doing on your own?
Andrew: When we were on Atlantic [Records] years ago, that was a situation where they controlled a lot especially even creative things. Being on an independent label like Tooth and Nail [Records], and being the band that we are and the type of artist that we have always wanted to be and always have tried to be, they have really never spoken into the creative process much. They may control financial things to a point. I think probably having the fans be the record label and knowing that the funding that we are getting from them, there doesn’t have to be some sort of management battle over getting money to do this or do that because the fans have already donated money to do everything that we need to do. So that is definitely probably the coolest part.
HM: Are you looking for radio-friendly? Is that in your mind, or you don’t care about any of that?
Andrew: In approaching this album, there wasn’t necessarily a conscious effort to write songs for a certain medium or a certain format. But there are songs on the record that are definitely more melodic catchier songs that will make a good single. But I think the first single is going to be one of the heavier songs because I just think for my band and for what we are, it represents what we do and the emotion and the power that comes through. To me a good single is a song where the emotion and the power is conveyed honestly. It’s tangible and you can touch it and you can connect to people in it. It doesn’t have to be cheesy, in the typical radio sense, radio song. So that’s the way we always approached it.
HM: So would you try to get out of being considered as a Christian band?
Andrew: I think that tag is always going to be with us. I think years ago it was a little hard because I think music was in a different place to get past that and to get people to see past that when you are dealing with general market press or general market touring. There is a perception that comes along with being known as a Christian band that says, “Oh, you are second rate, you are not as legitimate.” So I think any band in our position that comes from a place of faith that plays in this circuit or this scene is going to battle a little bit with trying to overcome that stereotype. And I think for us, it’s just about being as legit as we can be. And we have obviously done a lot of general market touring in the past. We are always open to the opportunities. And we want our Christian fans to come along with us wherever we go.
HM: What one song are you most excited to share with your fans that they haven’t heard yet?
Andrew: I think initially it is probably one of the songs we played tonight. It’s called “Fall Goliath Fall.” And that’s kind of the hook on the lyric on the chorus. It’s just got a different sound and a different feel. When you reinvent yourself, when you try to do something different, it is hard to pull off sometimes. I feel like we are pulling this off and it’s a fresh take on a brand that people are familiar with but this could be something brand new for people. So I’m excited to share that song with people. I tell this story all the time when I am on stage. I sent Scott, our drummer, a copy of an early mix of it and he wrote me text messages back. I got this string of text messages and my phone was sitting across the room and I was just like, “Who is texting me over and over again?” He just lightened me up. He just said, “Man, I just got chills. This is our year. This is the year for P86. This is going to be incredible.” And that has been the reaction. Over and over again people are telling me, “I got chills when I heard that song.” That’s cool. That’s what we want. You look at Quincy Jones’ commentary on the making of “Thriller” and I would never obviously put my band on any sort of plane with Michael Jackson but this has kind of stuck with me when I heard him say this. He said, “Your goal as an artist is you want to give people the prickly’s on the back of their necks. You want to make them have chills.” If I can write one song in my career that does that consistently with people, aw man that’s cool. There are so many artists that don’t do that. They may write good songs. But that’s when you know you are connecting, when you are taking people to that kind of deeper place.
HM: What do you think is more important on this album, the music or the lyrics?
Andrew: The music drives the lyrics. I was way more in control of the musical process this time around than I have in previous releases. And so crafting musical songs without, because I didn’t approach the lyrics at all, because I was wearing two different hats, so I wanted to write music that I was inspired by myself so when it came around to the vocal parts it would be a no-brainer and I would be locked into it. So the music drives the lyrics. To the fans it works together. We’ve always been a band that has been known for the lyrical content which I am proud of. I obsess over the lyrics because I want people to get something out of them. I can’t write cool lyrics if there isn’t cool music.
HM: Speaking of lyrics, I noticed as I walked around during your set that people were singing along. How does that make you feel when you are up there seeing people singing along to your lyrics?
Andrew: Well I am kind of a perfectionist so I don’t pay attention to the 98% that hopefully are singing, I am looking at the ones that aren’t. And I am thinking about how can I get that guy to uncross his arms and get into this. So it’s all about pulling out the tricks. Tonight I made people lock arms when they were doing some of the jumping stuff so they would get dragged into participating. The people that are already singing, we already have them. So I don’t have to worry about them. I have to worry about the one sheep that has gone astray.
HM: So in promoting the new album, how does social media fit in? Way back when you first started doing your own thing, who knew what social media was. How is that going to affect getting the word out about this album?
Andrew: It’s interesting because I feel like social media is coming around full circle a little bit in the sense that, when you take Facebook, it’s not that if you have 50,000 people that “like” your band, you are marketing yourself to 50,000 people. Because they use an algorithmic formula in determining who gets to see your posts. So therefore they are controlling your information flow. In fact that we all rely so much on social media to communicate with one another, is bad now. A few years back when it was Myspace, and it was simple, and you just posted something and everybody sees it. Well that led to spam. So Facebook has tried to get rid of spam but in-so-doing what they are really accomplishing is controlling information flow for advertisers. And I would love to see all of our fans traffic to our website more again. We are working on a new website and my boy Scott here is involved with that process because he is a graphical guy. I want everyone to come to our website and get on our email list and that way we control the information flow. And we know that every time we send out an email, people are going to get that email. Instead of wondering, we’ve got however many tens of thousands of people that “like” us, but a small percentage actually sees the post. That is frustrating. So social media to answer your question I believe is a more complex game these days than it was even a few years ago. You’ve got SEO you’ve got to think about. It’s just a competitive strange world even for the independent artists. The great news is with Kickstarter, those people that backed our band, those are direct connections. And that is what we want is direct connection with people rather than to rely on social media.
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